~e; Fwd: Rising Fears That What We Do Know Can Hurt Us

From bc <human@electronetwork.org>
Date Sun, 18 Nov 2001 18:35:02 -0600

  [what is below is something of relevance to the goal of educating 
citizens about basic
  knowledge of electromagnetism in today's (and yesterday's and 
tomorrow's) world.
  that is, local places such as tv stations and radio stations for the 
purpose of public
  tours (which are sometimes offered if one gives advance notice) 
could become an
  activity of suspicion, as their knowledge (of whereabouts which is 
dubious to any
  geographer on the planet) may threaten security. same with dams, 
  and the like. one fear, more and more justified by current events, 
is that any 'new'
  knowledge, or focus on such things could put these very things in 
jeopardy, either
  physical or mental, in the sense of re-evaluating their current role 
in the way the
  infrastructure works. thus, a great, unique, and important cultural 
enterprise of
  power, media, and technology may be off-limits to new 
interpretations, knowledge,
  and innovation. that is, establishing knowledge of a system of 
  that is currently without-value, as it is invisible mentally, and 
now, it could be
  invisible physically, off-limits, and any new knowledge considered 
dangerous as
  it may be threatening. this is quite dangerous, as GIS systems which 
show all of
  the powerlines or oil lines in the USA would need to be censored, 
but then again,
  it would also show how almost all of the oil and gas lines 
spider-out from Texas
  to the whole nation, a central point in the industrial oil economy. 
basic knowledge,
  kindergarten level, does not exist for the populace, in whole or 
part, of how even
  the most basic of everday tools works. like the dark ages, it may 
remain 'magic']

Rising Fears That What We Do Know Can Hurt Us

Information: The government is pulling back on previously shared data 
to keep it from aiding terrorists.

Times Staff Writer

November 18 2001

WASHINGTON -- The document seemed innocuous enough: a survey of 
government data on reservoirs and dams on CD-ROM. But then came last 
month's federal directive to U.S. libraries: "Destroy the report."

So a Syracuse University library clerk broke the disc into pieces, 
saving a single shard to prove that the deed was done.

The unusual order from the Government Printing Office reflects one of 
the hidden casualties of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: the public's 
shrinking access to information that many once took for granted.

Want to find out whether there are any hazardous waste sites near the 
local day-care center? What safety controls are in place at nuclear 
power plants? Or how many people are incarcerated in 
terrorist-related probes?

Since Sept. 11, it has become much harder to get such information 
from the federal government, a growing number of states and public 
libraries as heightened concern about national security has often 
trumped the public's "right to know:"

* At least 15 federal agencies have yanked potentially sensitive 
information off the Internet, or removed Web sites altogether, for 
fear that terrorists could exploit the government data. The excised 
material ranges from information on chemical reactors and 
risk-management programs to airport data and mapping of oil pipelines.

* Several states have followed the federal government's lead. 
California, for example, has removed information on dams and 
aqueducts, state officials said.

* Members of the public who want to use reading rooms at federal 
agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service must now make an 
appointment and be escorted by an employee to ensure that information 
is not misused.

* The Government Printing Office has begun ordering about 1,300 
libraries nationwide that serve as federal depositories to destroy 
government records that federal agencies say could be too sensitive 
for public consumption.

* Federal agencies are imposing a stricter standard in reviewing 
hundreds of thousands of Freedom of Information Act requests from the 
public each year; officials no longer have to show that disclosure 
would cause "substantial harm" before rejecting a request. Watchdog 
groups say they have already started to see rejections of requests 
that likely would have been granted before.

The trend reverses a decades-long shift toward greater public access 
to information, even highly sensitive documents such as the Pentagon 
Papers or unconventional manifestos such as "The Anarchist's 
Cookbook," a compilation of recipes for making bombs. The popularity 
of the Internet has made sensitive information even easier to come by 
in recent years, but the events of Sept. 11 are now fueling a new 
debate in Washington: How much do Americans need to know?

Attacks Place Internet Content in New Light

The swinging of the pendulum away from open records, supporters of 
the trend say, is a necessary safeguard against terrorists who could 
use sensitive public information to attack airports, water treatment 
plants, nuclear reactors and more.

In an Oct. 12 memo announcing the new Freedom of Information Act 
policies, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said that, while "a well-informed 
citizenry" is essential to government accountability, national 
security should be a priority.

"The tragic events of Sept. 11 have compelled us to carefully review 
all of the information we make available to the public over the 
Internet in a new light," Elaine Stanley, an Environmental Protection 
Agency official, told a House subcommittee earlier this month.

But academicians, public interest groups, media representatives and 
others warn of an overreaction.

"Do you pull all the Rand McNally atlases from the libraries? I mean, 
how far do you go?" asked Julia Wallace, head of the government 
publications library at the University of Minnesota.

"I'm certainly worried by what I've seen," said Gary Bass, executive 
director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit group in Washington that monitors 
the Office of Management and Budget and advocates greater access to 
government data on environmental and other issues.

"In an open society such as ours, you always run the risk that 
someone is going to use information in a bad way," Bass said. "You 
have to take every step to minimize those risks without undermining 
our democratic principles. You can't just shut down the flow of 

It's a fine line acknowledged by Stanley. "[The] EPA is aware that we 
need a balance between protecting sensitive information in the 
interest of national security and maintaining access to the 
information that citizens can use to protect their health and the 
environment in their communities."

The Sept. 11 hijackers, using readily accessible tools like box 
cutters, the Internet and Boeing flight manuals, hatched a plot too 
brazen for many to fathom. It forced authorities to consider whether 
a range of public sites and sensitive facilities was much more 
vulnerable than they had realized--and whether public records could 
provide a playbook for targeting them.

Officials acknowledge that there are very few examples of terrorists 
actually using public records to glean sensitive information, but 
they say that the terrorist attacks prove the need for extraordinary 

The first directive by the Government Printing Office, made last 
month at the request of the U.S. Geological Survey, ordered libraries 
to destroy a water resources guide. While documents have been pulled 
before because they contained mistakes or were outdated, this was the 
first time in memory that documents were destroyed because of 
security concerns, said Francis Buckley, superintendent of documents 
for the printing office.

Because the water survey was published and owned by the U.S. 
Geological Survey, the libraries that participate in the depository 
program said they had little choice but to comply. Some librarians 
asked if they could simply pull the CD from shelves and put it in a 
secure place, but federal officials told them it had to be destroyed.

"I hate to do it," said Christine Gladish, government information 
librarian at Cal State Los Angeles, which has pulled the water survey 
from its collection and is preparing to destroy it. "Libraries don't 
like to censor information. Freedom of information is a professional 

Peter Graham, university librarian at Syracuse University, said: 
"Destruction seems to be the least desirable option to me. . . . 
We're all waiting for the other shoe to drop. Are we going to see a 
lot more withdrawals [of documents]? That's my fear."

In fact, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing publications 
that it has made available through the Government Printing Office, 
Buckley said, and it is almost certain to ask for the destruction of 
some of its titles.

Some have resisted the push to limit access, even on such 
nerve-rattling subjects as anthrax.

The American Society for Microbiology's Web site--an extensive 
collection of research articles, news releases and expert 
testimony--includes information about antibiotic-resistant anthrax. 
After anthrax-laced letters contaminated the nation's mail system, 
members of the society debated whether a determined individual could 
find and misuse the information on its site.

"We . . . decided not to remove it," said Dr. Ronald Atlas, 
president-elect of the scientific organization. "The principle right 
now is one of openness in science. . . . If someone wants to publish 
[a legitimate research paper], we're not going to be the censor."

But that position has drawn scorn from some of Atlas' colleagues.

"We have to get away from the ethos that knowledge is good, knowledge 
should be publicly available, that information will liberate us," 
said University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan. 
"Information will kill us in the techno-terrorist age, and I think 
it's nuts to put that stuff on Web sites."

The debate about sensitive information is not a new one. A quarter of 
a century ago, Princeton University undergraduate John Phillips 
pointed out the dangers of nuclear weapons when he was able to use 
publicly available sources to design a crude but functional nuclear 

Phillips, who now heads a political consulting firm in Washington, 
said in a recent interview that cutting off the flow of information 
after Sept. 11 is merely a "cosmetic" change when what is really 
needed are better means of securing access to nuclear and chemical 
facilities and supplies.

Members of the public will be the ones to suffer, he said. 
"Restricting information may make us feel good, but terrorists aren't 
dumb. They'll still be able to get at this information somehow."

In the past, it has taken a tragedy to buck the trend toward more and 
greater public access. That's what happened in California in 1989 
after actress Rebecca Schaeffer was shot to death at her Los Angeles 
home by an obsessed fan who used publicly available motor vehicle 
records to find out where she lived. The state quickly cut off public 
access to such records.

Indeed, chemical and water industry groups are lobbying the Bush 
administration to curtail regulations providing public access to the 
operations of public facilities, data that environmentalists say are 
critical to ensuring safety.

And nongovernment entities such as the Federation of American 
Scientists have begun curtailing information.

Group Clears Pages From its Web Site

The group recently pulled 200 pages from its Web site with 
information on nuclear storage facilities and other government sites. 
For a group known for promoting open information, it was "an awkward 
decision," concedes Steven Aftergood, director of the federation's 
government secrecy project.

"But Sept. 11 involved attacks on buildings, and we realized some of 
the information we had up [on the Web] seemed unnecessarily detailed, 
including floor plans and certain photographs that didn't seem to add 
much to public policy debate and conceivably could introduce some new 
vulnerabilities," he said.

"Everyone is now groping toward a new equilibrium," Aftergood said. 
"There are obviously competing pressures that cannot easily be 
reconciled. The critics of disclosure are saying that we are exposing 
our vulnerabilities to terrorists. The proponents of disclosure say 
that it's only by identifying our vulnerabilities that we have any 
hope of correcting them. I suspect that both things are true."

_ _ _

Times staff writer Aaron Zitner contributed to this report.

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